Art and Science: Individual Entities or Synonymous Expressions of Imagination?

In the words of Emily Dickinson, “The brain[ ]is wider than the sky”. How can the human brain, with such finite physical dimensions, contain something as expansive as the sky? And not only contain it, but have room left over? Simply put, by virtue of imagination.

Imagination is a power that allows for the creation and perception of concepts extending beyond the realm of reality. In Chapter 1 of Gillian Beer’s book, “Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin”, Beer discusses the interplay of “imagination and the material world” [Beer, 25] surrounding the solidification of Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.

Essentially, Darwin’s theory was very much in contrast with the theological notions of the origins of life that ruled his era, specifically, the theory of divinely induced, fully formed creation. Using his imagination to build on the theories of individuals such as Charles Lyell, Darwin was able to create something new. Based on his perceptions of the limited fossil record of the day, in conjunction with his imagination’s power to guess at the fullness of “an unfathomable past”, Darwin arrived at his theory of Natural Selection. The fact that generations since Darwin have been able to prove his theory correct demonstrates the power of imagination. Making leaps at the edges of reality, into the realm of possibility, is the basis of imagination. In Darwin’s case, these leaps were proven accurate, after enough material information could be gathered to form a concrete conclusion.

The extension of human thought beyond the limits of reality is imagination. The thoughts created by imagination are oftentimes overwhelmingly grand. However, it is these grandiose, hugely aspirational thoughts that push humankind to discover deeper realms of knowledge, and a clearer understanding of existence. It is my belief that the curiosity sparked by imagination is the common thread between arts and science, and is powerful enough to render them synonymous upon close, critical inspection.

Art is “the various branches of creative activity concerned with the production of imaginative designs, sounds, ideas, etc” [“Art”, OED]. Science is “knowledge”¦ covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through the scientific method and concerned with the physical world and its phenomena” [“Science”, Merriam Webster].

Invention, or the production of something new “through the use of the imagination” [“Invent”, Merriam Webster] is a clear link between art and science. An artist is nothing without a unique, original work, just as a scientist is nothing without a hypothesis and a unique experimental aim. Invention is the method by which this uniqueness is arrived at.

When one begins with an unknown, an empty canvas or an unexplained phenomenon, invention is the vehicle of progress. The imagination of a testable, practical theory, or a masterful painting both require a foreknowledge of the bounds of reality, and then, a willingness to push those boundaries. For example, painting in a new medium, or experimenting with physical laws under extreme temperatures. In both science and art, invention arises out of a desire to transform incomplete, sporadic information (sensory, or numerical, or physical, etc) into a cohesive picture. Through technique experimentation, artists test accepted boundaries. Scientists do the same by questioning and attempting to experimentally or mathematically investigate pieces of accepted thought.

The inseparability of art and science exists not only in the cause of creation, but also in the reception of creation. Works of art and science are criticized and analyzed equally forcefully. Society feels a great need to understand everything about a painting like the Mona Lisa, and just as much about the theory of natural selection, before either are revered as masterpieces. It is impossible to look at a work of art without any scientific thought, even subconsciously. The human brain picks up on the visual codes embedded in artwork via colour, tone, contrast, gestures, and more [F. David Peat,]. Similarly, it is impossible to view a scientific work, such as a mathematical proof, without appreciating the artistry that went into its derivation, and the imagination of its solution. On the surface, some things may appear to be purely artistic or scientific. However, there are always, infallibly, interconnected aspects capable of linking human creations to both art and science.

Art and science are misleading terms. Both refer to the passion, wonderment, desire for knowledge, desire to test perceived limits that seem to be an incurable side effect of the human condition. Art and science are synonymous ventures of the imagination, undertaken in an effort to deepen human understanding. This theme, derived from Gillian Beer’s analysis of Darwin’s imaginative efforts, serves as the basis of my PetchaKucha presentation.

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